By Russell Warfield
At this point in Of Montreal’s career, it’s becoming just as much fun to guess what they’ll do next as it is to actually hear it. Beginning their life as a jingly-jangly ’60s pop outfit, more recent efforts have included a sort-of concept album which saw vocalist/mastermind Kevin Barnes transform into a black transsexual funk vocalist called Georgie Fruit halfway through its running time, as well as an hour long patchwork of thirty-to-sixty second ADD-riddled vignettes. 2010’s False Priest split the difference, combining the electro-funk production of Skeletal Lamping with the ready-for-radio song structures of Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?. Eager to buck a trend before it’s even formed, however, Paralytic Stalks delivers itself without apology as Barnes’ weirdest, darkest and least accessible work yet.
Take the most obvious example (the clue is in the title): ‘Exorcismic Breeding Knife’. A seven minute nightmare of atonal string samples, drum fills amounting to nothing, and menacing spoken word – it’s the most abstruse thing Barnes has yet put to tape. And whilst being the album’s most outlandish moment, it nonetheless feels in-keeping by the time of its appearance. Laced throughout the whole record is a wilful darkness and rawness, with many songs shunning the colourful, zillion-tracked harmonies synonymous with the band, choosing instead to deliver songs with a stripped back, vulnerable and naked single tracked vocal. Take the ‘Spiteful Interventions’ chorus of “I spend my waking hours haunting my own life. I made the one I love start crying tonight and it felt good”, delivered in a more deeply impassioned howl with each repetition, as the emotional intensity ratchets up across the songs’ running time, arriving finally at an violently overwrought “pheelllt GHOOOUURRD!!”.
The fact that the vocal delivery can evolve alongside the songs’ development on Paralytic Stalks is an important one. Certainly, these aren’t songs which have the verse-chorus three-minute pop structures of False Priest, but there are structures in place here, repeated refrains and recurring passages serving as landmarks and frameworks for these songs, providing a central sense of purpose to these tracks as they meander through darkness for running times of up to thirteen minutes. Unlike the seemingly randomly thrown together snapshots of Skeletal Lamping these pieces (perhaps owing to the obvious modern classical influences of the closing tracks) seem to have been conceived of as wholes, whilst retaining that thrilling ability to wander off in surprising new directions.
Plenty of people (including myself, on initial listens) will think Paralytic Stalks is the bridge too far that Barnes has always threatened to cross – a headlong dive into the abyss of narcissistic self-indulgence. There’s more than enough grounds for such a position. For instance, while Hissing Fauna displayed an invigorating inability to self-censor, Barnes’ lyricism has since morphed into a stubborn refusal to self-edit. Some of these tracks are overwhelmingly wordy, as if Barnes is incapable of expressing a thought in anything less than eight syllables longer than a line ought to be. As a result, the verses of these tracks often turn into interchangeable mush, devoid of melody.
On a different head, it’s also very difficult to imagine how some of these elongated passages of dissonance and abrasion are going to integrate into the live show. I’ve hellish visions of slack-jawed crowds being forced to stand through four-plus minutes of ambient guitar feedback and jazz flute as Barnes gives birth to himself out of a vagina on his own forehead, set to strobe lighting. But if you’re anything like me, I’ll have provoked your curiosity with my opening claim of this being Barnes’ weirdest record yet – a claim which will probably tip the balance of whether or not you listen to this album regardless of anything else I might or might not say about it. On those grounds – I’ll leave things here, offering only the advice that it’s an album which isn’t going to ‘click’ (if it ‘clicks’ at all) on an initial or cursory listen. For better of worse, it’s Of Montreal at their logical extreme: hyper-stuffed and challenging, but consistently interesting.